Jodie Foster’s first film as a director in 16 years is a curious drama laced with surreal comedy.
Opening with the depressed head of a toy company (Mel Gibson) being kicked out of the family home by his wife (Foster, who also stars) and explores how he seemingly turns his life around by talking to people through a beaver hand puppet.
Loved ones and co-workers are bemused but initially welcome him back, with the exception of his angry teenage son (Anton Yelchin), who strikes up a relationship with a classmate (Jennifer Lawrence) who also has issues of her own.
Kyle Killen’s script was hot property back in 2008 and part of the appeal might have been the way it mixes a striking concept within a conventional setting, whilst providing a showy lead role for the central character (Steve Carrell was attached early on).
The resulting production had a rocky joureny to cinemas, as a much publicised voicemail scandal involving its star (on the back of other well-documented problems) led to its release being delayed by several months.
But if you put all that pre-release baggage to one side, how does the finished film stand up?
It turns out that the film isn’t bad at all and has surprising levels of emotion if one treats it as a drama, which happens to be sprinkled with humour.
Gibson gives a surprisingly nuanced performance in the lead role, which is no mean feat given that for most of the film he’s talking like Ray Winstone through a hand puppet (for some reason, the beaver has a British accent).
This leads to some bizarre scenes that strain credibility, but given his position of power at work and the relief of his loved ones to have him back home, it just about works.
The scenes where Gibson’s character talks through his puppet actually work pretty well, given that they could have been utterly ridiculous.
In the supporting roles, Foster convinces as an exhausted but loving wife, whilst Yelchin and Lawrence do their best with teenage roles that feel a little underwritten.
Although she hasn’t directed in a long time (her last film was 1995’s Home for the Holidays), Foster has mixes the contrasting tones in a way that you don’t often see with Hollywood productions.
The tasteful widescreen lensing by DP Hagen Bogdanski (who also shot The Lives of Others) gives it a nice visual polish and the slick editing by Lynzee Klingman keeps things moving well, whilst skilfully intercutting the main plot of the father with the parallel subplot of the son.
On film, the mentally ill are often depicted as either psychotic killers (e.g. Psycho) or underdog geniuses (e.g. Rain Man) but to her credit Foster avoids these cliches, focusing with a good deal of empathy on how regular families grapple with the pain and uncertainty of having a loved one suffering from a psychological ailment.
Furthermore, it floats the idea that traditionally accepted treatments might not work for everyone, which contrasts with films which routinely dish out the subtext that everything will be OK in the end.
Not everything works here. Two significant strikes against the film are Marcelo Zavros’ jaunty score, which belongs in another film entirely, and a key plot development late on which feels too melodramatic.
As I write this, The Beaver has died a death at the US box office, which suggests Gibson and Foster are no longer the box office stars they were and that audiences were baffled by the story and tone.
Parts of the preview audience I saw it with seemed to be laughing at certain scenes in a derisory way (never a good sign), but to sneer at this film (as some may do), is to ignore its empathetic heart, even if in places it doesn’t fully work.
One recent film it closely resembles is Lars and the Real Girl (2007), which also featured a troubled, yet sympathetic, lead character with a bizarre fixation.
Like that film it may struggle to find a wide audience, but if you are prepared to go with it, The Beaver is a film with unusual depths that lie beneath its goofy premise.